Eco-friendly gardening that uses natural, organic methods can produce delectable, nutritious plants without the use of toxic fertilizers, pesticides or other chemicals. When the size of your urban property restricts your harvest output, you might wonder if chemical-free vegetables are worth the extra hassle.
The good news: It is.
“Yields in a well-managed organic garden will equal or surpass those in a conventional garden,” says Becky Grube, professor of sustainable crop production at the University of New Hampshire. “Yields have more to do with good pest management and whether crops receive the nutrients they need than with whether the garden is organic or conventional.”
You can take measures to help your organically raised plants flourish from seeds to full-grown, successful crops. Some organic gardeners point out that the initial costs and labor involved in producing a thriving organic garden decrease considerably over time, as the land becomes more fertile through eco-friendly techniques.
The Detox Diet
Organic gardening feeds the soil, which gives nourishment to plants and leads to a bountiful harvest. Healthy, fertile soil is alive with a veritable “army” of decomposing organisms—earthworms, soil bacteria and fungi. These hard-working creatures break down autumn leaves, spent vegetation and other organic matter into much-needed nutrients that help plants grow.
When conventional gardeners rely on heavy doses of chemicals to fertilize plants and manage pests, the soil can become a difficult place for these beneficial organisms to flourish. Toxic chemicals kill the organisms, and the soil consequently loses its vitality.
Once gardeners begin to use chemicals, they often must use even more to replenish the soil, creating a vicious cycle. Harmful insects may develop a resistance to chemical pesticides, requiring larger doses or additional chemicals to be used to stop pests from decimating the garden.
In an organic garden, natural fertilizers and composted soil provide actively decomposing matter that steadily feeds and improves the soil over time. Healthy plants offer better resistance to voracious insects and natural pest management aids plants in fending them off.
Garden Planning Done Right
Once your garden’s soil is full of healthy nutrients, consider which plants you want to grow and when you want to grow them.
Purchase organically grown seeds from reputable seed companies. Some mainstream garden catalogs carry organic seeds along with conventional varieties, but know what you’re buying. Avoid genetically engineered plants and seeds treated with toxic chemicals. Non-hybrid (open-pollinated) organic seeds can improve with each generation if you save seeds from the hardiest of these plants. (Download the USDA Plant Hardiness Zones map.)
Homemade Organic Fertilizer
Make a “tea” of liquid fertilizer by following these simple steps:
- Make a bag made from strong, coarse fabric like jute or hemp.
- Fill the bag with chopped dandelions or comfrey leaves. Tie it tight, and attach it firmly to a wooden plank.
- Position the plank over a barrel of water.
- Soak the bag for about three weeks and then remove.
- The water is now liquid fertilizer! Before using, water your soil, then apply the liquid fertilizer.
Keep in mind local climate and seasonal considerations. Try to buy organic seeds from garden companies based near you, and pick plants that grow well in your region and during your typical growing seasons.
Native plants are adapted to your specific area and, therefore, will produce a flourishing garden. Contact your local university extension service or local garden centers for literature to determine what types of seeds will thrive in your area, given average temperatures and types of soil. Seed catalogs also contain helpful information about raising specific plants.
You can sow some seeds in the garden’s soil, but many seeds can be started indoors or in a cold frame. Knowing your area’s frost-free dates is of the utmost importance.
“Every gardener should know the first frost-free date for planting and not get seeds and transplants in [the ground] too early. The soil has not warmed up enough and will result in your plants getting a slow start,” says Jacqueline A. Ricotta, PhD, associate professor and specialist in organic crop science at Delaware Valley College in Pennsylvania.
Several weeks before sowing your seeds, add compost to your garden soil and water the area. Some organic gardeners wait until weeds come up and pull or hoe them, but leave the updated plants to decay into rich mulch for crops. Don’t leave weeds in your garden long enough for them to go to seed.
Water the Garden
Healthy, composted garden soil contains large amounts of organic matter and has a great capacity to hold water. This encourages the growth of deep, vigorous root systems that firmly anchor crops.
Water garden plants thoroughly only as needed. Soak plants slowly and gently, the way a soft rain would moisten your plants. Never use a strong force of water, which leads to crusty layers on top of the soil and creates a barrier to seedlings that are pushing upward as they grow.
Too-frequent watering can hurt your plants as much as too little water. Don’t water lightly every day—this encourages roots to remain close to the soil’s surface, making them vulnerable to heat and dryness. Make sure the deepest roots soak up water. Thorough watering encourages deeper, stronger root systems to form.
Never water during the hottest hours of the day. The heat may cause the water to evaporate before it reaches the roots, where the best absorption takes place. Water on leaves in mid-day sun can also scorch leaves, wilting them beyond repair. On the other hand, water on leaves in cold weather chills plants and leaves them vulnerable to disease.
Garden Fertilizing the Organic Way
Enhancing your organic garden with nutrient-rich compost makes plants stronger and more resistant to droughts and disease. As a result, you won’t need to fertilize your garden as often.
Consider testing your garden’s soil to see if it needs fertilizer. Remember that organic products differ considerably from synthetic, commercial brands. Organic fertilizers come from naturally occurring matter and need microorganisms to feed your plants nutrients.
On the other hand, chemical fertilizers, when mixed with water, become immediately accessible to plants. It’s much easier to over-feed plants with these types, whereas organic products naturally release nutrients slowly and steadily for continued, vigorous plant growth.
About the Author: Linda Tagliaferro lives in the suburbs of New York City, where she and her husband enjoy fruits from their fig trees, their home-grown basil in pesto and their wild-growing milkweed that feeds monarch butterflies. She’s been a freelance writer for 20 years and has written over 40 books for children and adults.